A peculiar patriotism

“You pretend that you are patriots, but you are anything but,” said Virginia’s governor Terry McAuliffe in condemning the violence of neo-Nazis and white nationalist supremacists Saturday in Charlottesville. To the contrary, American white nationalist belief is grounded firmly in its own brand of patriotism. To fail to grasp this fact is to underestimate the difficulty of the struggle against it.

For these folks, the threatened take-down of a statue of Robert E. Lee is serious business. In the historical genealogy of the extreme right, Gen. Lee is the heir of George Washington, as valiant and virtuous as all of the Revolutionary heroes. The rhetoric of the Lost Cause finds its center in the revered Gen. Lee, who hailed not (like Jefferson Davis) from the Deep South but from Virginia, the cradle of the nation. After his death, Robert E. Lee became the link between the nation’s founding era and the dream of a day, yet to come, of southern redemption.

In the words of one of Lee’s eulogists, Morgan H. Looney, “And here, O Southern land, land of freedom once, land of memories now, here in your bitter calamity we bring our all of future hope and by the margin of Lee’s honored grave we consecrate our faith afresh and swear our fealty anew.”

After the rollback of Reconstruction, after Plessy v. Ferguson and the exclusion of blacks from political and economic relevance, a narrative of white American heroism was set in stone, in North Carolina as well as across the South, taking the shape of what architectural historian Catherine Bishir calls “landmarks of power.” From the 1880s to the early 1890s, the locus of Civil War memorials shifted from cemeteries to public spaces, and with that shift, from private remembrance to more partisan symbolism. This was the period of Raleigh’s grand monument to North Carolina’s Confederate dead, erected in 1895.

The second phase followed an unexpected development: the white supremacist Democrats’ loss of control of the legislature and the governorship to the Fusionists, in 1894 and 1896. The swift and sharp response to this embarrassment was what we once called the Wilmington Race Riot of 1898, now more accurately known as a deadly coup d’etat. In the accompanying new phase of monument-building, there was no room for dissent.

“With competing versions of the state’s past, present, and future all but silenced in official discourse,” Bishir writes, “leaders shared a powerful sense that both in politics and in the culture at large, matters had been returned to their correct alignment.” North Carolina’s history was reinterpreted as a tapestry of “old family heritage, Anglo-Saxon supremacy, and military and political heroism.”

This is the era in which Silent Sam arose. Julian Carr’s dedicatory speech on its unveiling, in 1913, recalls that it was only Anglo-Saxon blood that saved the day during Reconstruction, “when the bottom rail was on top.” And “as a consequence the purest strain of the Anglo Saxon is to be found in the 13 Southern States – Praise God.”

This is also the era of the erection of the statue in Raleigh to Judge Thomas Ruffin, the author of State v. Mann (1830), which gave masters virtually unlimited powers of discipline over their slaves: “The power of the master must be absolute, to render the submission of the slave perfect.” At the statue’s dedication, in 1915, Governor Locke Craig extended the lineage even further than the nation’s founding, mixing colonialist and Enlightenment rhetoric to underscore the broad reach of Ruffin’s reputation:

He is recognized everywhere as one of the greatest judges that our race has produced. In the uttermost parts of the earth, where the English jurisprudence exercises its beneficent rule, he speaks and will speak to legislatures, to courts, and to executives, directing and enlightening them in the way of truth and in the conception and administration of justice.

I concluded an article on Ruffin’s statue by calling it a monument to a “vanished era.” It looks like that was wishful thinking.

(Thumbnail photo: Patricia Sawin.)

 

 

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